Last month, I found myself in Paris at short notice. Normally, I like to plan my trips to the nth degree, ensuring that I hit all the most important marks, and by important marks, I mean restaurants, bakeries, grocers, delis, anywhere with a passing interest in food. My research was panicked and haphazard and I found myself seeking lunch in a restaurant a ridiculous distance from where I was staying.
I had no idea what to expect in this farflung restaurant, and wasn’t filled with confidence when I realised I was the only person in there. But as is often the case, it’s the unplanned bits of a trip that turn out to be the loveliest, and when it came to pudding, I was far from disappointed. I approached an entire sideboard of puddings: clafoutis and thick yoghurts with a handful of different fruit compotes, poached prunes, maybe half a dozen different cakes. And to the right of all of these, was a large pyrex dish, untouched, filled with buttermilk coloured custard, topped with a dozen plump, fluffy, snow-white meringues: îles flottantes.
I spooned the meringues and custard it into my bowl from the big dish and took it back to my table, no longer concerned that I was the sole diner. Îles flottantes is not the kind of dish I normally order: it’s not big and ballsy, showy or a bit unusual. It’s a French classic, but a simple one: it’s a delicate dish of vanilla-scented custard, cold and smooth, and meringues that are poached rather than baked. The poaching makes the meringues ethereally light, almost marshmallowy, so much so that they sit – float – on the créme anglaise, like the eponymous islands. It is a gentle pudding, but that’s it’s charm. The cool custard and pillowy meringue are more than the sum of their parts: drizzled with dark, runny, slightly bitter caramel, and sprinkled with toasted almonds for added crunch, it is the perfect pudding.
The trick to poaching the meringues is using a wide, shallow pan, and as little water as you can get away with. Don’t be tempted to add a lid to the pan: my experiments in this manner led to the most perfect swollen snowdrifts disappearing into a puff of steam, like candyfloss dropped in water.
Takes:20 minutes, plus cooling
Bakes: No time at all
For the meringue
2 egg whites
100g caster sugar
¼ teaspoon cream of tartare
½ teaspoon cornflour
For the crème anglaise
100g caster sugar
4 egg yolks
1 vanilla pod
For the topping
50g caster sugar
2 tablespoons flaked almonds
- First, make the créme anglaise. Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar. When the milk and cream are steaming, fish out the vanilla pod, and pour a third of the hot milk on to the eggs and sugar, whisking gently. Return the whole mixture to the pan and cook gently, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan. The mixture will thicken. Dip a spoon in the custard and run your finger down the back of it: if the line remains clean, and the mixture doesn’t rush to fill the gap, it is ready. Leave to cool, with clingfilm touching the custard to stop skin forming.
- Briefly toast the almonds in a small pan, over a medium heat, keeping an eye on the nuts as they can catch quickly. Remove them from the heat as soon as they start to take on colour, and decant from the pan, to stop them cooking further.
- To make the caramel sauce, heat the 50g of caster sugar with 50ml of water over a medium heat in a high-sided pan until the mixture turns a dark brown. Carefully add 50ml of hot water, and whisk into the mixture: be careful as the hot caramel will spit when the water hits in, and caramel burns hurt! Set to one side: the caramel sauce will thicken as it cools.
- Once the custard is cool, make the meringues. Whisk the egg whites in a large, clean bowl with the cream of tartar until they form stiff peaks. Add the caster sugar in three additions, bringing the egg whites back up to stiff peaks each time. Sprinkle the cornflour over the mixture and whisk through.
- Heat a shallow layer of water in a wide, low-sided pan. When simmering, spoon two generous serving spoons of meringue into the water, and cook for two minutes before gently flipping the meringues and cooking the other side of the meringue for a further two minutes. Carefully remove from the pan onto greaseproof paper, and repeat with the rest of the mixture.
- To serve, spoon a layer of the cold vanilla custard in a bowl, place one or two of the meringues on top, drizzle with the caramel sauce, and sprinkle with the toasted almonds.